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The Right to the Citi(zen): Urban Spaces in Commercial Media Environments

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Following the publication of Henri Lefebvre's book Le Droit à la ville (1968), a debate has emerged regarding the neoliberal takeover of urban spaces and activism. Nonetheless, in the past 10 years, we have seen the continuous expansion of public
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  Space and Culture2016, Vol. 19(4) 478  –489© The Author(s) 2016Reprints and permissions:sagepub.com/journalsPermissions.nav DOI: 10.1177/1206331215621010sac.sagepub.com  Article The Right to the Citi(zen): Urban Spaces in Commercial Media Environments Stina Bengtsson 1 Abstract Following the publication of Henri Lefebvre’s book Le Droit à la ville  (1968), a debate has emerged regarding the neoliberal takeover of urban spaces and activism. Nonetheless, in the past 10 years, we have seen the continuous expansion of public space via social networking media and, today, most public institutions in Western states use social networking sites to communicate with their “citizens.” Although there are many serious problems associated with this takeover, little has been said about them so far. In this article, I address the contribution of The right to the city   to this debate by analyzing a public institution which tried to establish communication with its “citizens” in an urban space in a virtual world. My analysis concludes that the users of this new media platform did not regard themselves as citizens when they were dwelling in this urban space online, but instead saw themselves as the consumers they were addressed as in this environment. Keywords digital media, urban space, Lefebvre, citizen, commercial culture In the late 1960s, the publication of Henri Lefebvre’s  Le droit à la ville  (1968) sparked intense debate. He argued that the increasing commercialization and administrative logic involved in the transformation and expansion of urban space force underprivileged groups away from the land they have appropriated and inhabit, changing the foundations of urban life. According to Lefebvre, the working classes must stand united against this and he called for a restructuring of  power relations in society. The piece was translated to English in 1996 (Lefebvre, 1996) and the concept of “the right to the city” has attracted renewed interest lately, not least after an eye-opening article by David Harvey in the  New Left Review  (2008) on the effects of globalization on urban spaces. Recently, in Space and Culture  (Vol. 16, Issue No. 3, 2013), an entire edition was devoted to discussions about  Le droit à la ville .The debate about the right to the city has primarily revolved around urban activism and civic engagement, resisting the structural and organizational restraints that commercial culture place on city inhabitants (e.g., Lloyd, 2013). In this article, however, I discuss the transformation and expansion of urban space by way of digital media. My argument is based on an analysis of the virtual city of Malmö,  Malmo in Second Life  (2009-2010), a project to enhance civic engagement and improve the city’s communication with its citizens. 1 Södertörn University, Huddinge, Sweden Corresponding Author: Stina Bengtsson, Media and Communication Studies, Södertörn University, Alfred Nobels allé 7, S-141 89 Huddinge, Sweden. Email: stina.bengtsson@sh.se SAC XX   X   10.1177/1206331215621010Spaceand Culture Bengtsson etal. research-article   2016  Bengtsson et al. 479 The democratic potential of the Internet, especially regarding its increasing commercializa-tion, has been intensely debated (cf. Cammaerts & Carpentier, 2007; Couldry, Livingstone, & Markham, 2007; Dahlberg, 1998; Dahlgren, 2009; Fuchs, 2011; Olsson, 2002; Olsson & Dahlgren, 2010). Increasing user activity has encouraged both commercial and noncommercial agencies to use social networking sites to communicate with their target groups locally and glob-ally (Bengtsson, 2013; Bennett & Entman, 2003; Gordon & Koo, 2008; Jiang & Xu, 2009; Tumber & Bromley, 1998). The problem I address in this article is how digital environments affect communication between public agents and urban inhabitants. Method and Materials I have used a case methodology (Creswell, 1998, Chap. 4), inspired by ethnographic methods, to  better understand  Malmo in Second Life . I combined information gathered from a large number of sources to get a better understanding of this case. The written texts included in the material are Malmö city’s application to the European Structural Funds and the final report concluding the  project. I also carried out three producer interviews: the administrator responsible for the virtual environment at City Hall in Malmö, the web designer who actually built the environment, and a PR agent who owned a Second Life environment for many years (The Second Sweden), which Malmö took over as the starting point for its project. These interviews were all conducted offline and recorded and transcribed. I also conducted participant observations in the virtual environ-ment between December 2009 and May 2011, hanging out, observing, and talking to people about their experiences in the virtual city. Besides these informal chats, I also conducted four more formal interviews with participants in the virtual world. During these interviews, we dis-cussed Malmö’s city project and their experiences of it. These interviews were saved as written text. I quote the producers using their real names; the avatars have been made anonymous in the text.At the time of the virtual city’s existence, there were 10 to 15 blogs reporting on the Swedish Second Life community on a more or less regular basis. These blogs were not focused exclu-sively on  Malmo in Second Life . They also commented on the Swedish Second Life community and its different events. I read these blogs, looking for information about  Malmo in Second Life , in search of a variety of voices about the project.The most active of the magazines covering Second Life at the time was the journal, Slainthe , which was published more or less on a regular basis between 2007 and 2010. Several articles in the journal discuss Malmö’s Second Life project, from its early days to its closing down as a virtual city.In addition, I have also gathered and analyzed articles from the Swedish and international daily press and magazines that commented generally on Second Life and more specifically on its Swedish activities, in contexts as widespread as Australia, the United States, India, the United Kingdom, Germany though most thoroughly, of course, in Sweden. My analysis focuses on how the city administration and the users of  Malmo in Second Life  constructed the digital environment as urban space. Are There Citizens in New Media Environments? Joppke (2007) has identified three diverse discourses in the citizen debate: citizen as status, right, or identity. Although there are legal rights associated with being inhabitants of cities (or munici- palities) in Sweden, citizenship as identity is the focus here as no formal or juridical issues actu-ally turned out to be involved in the project once it started. According to Joppke (2007), citizenship as identity refers to the “behavioral aspects of individuals acting and conceiving of themselves as members of a collectivity, classically the nation, or the normative conceptions of such behavior  480  Space and Culture 19(4) imputed by the state” (p. 38). Citizenship as identity, thus, means having a sense of belonging to a spatially organized community and adapting to duties and rights associated with that belonging. This is well in line with Lefebvre’s thoughts in The right to the city . As Purcell (2002) insight-fully proclaimed, to fully understand The right to the city , we need to distinguish between citizens  on the one hand and inhabitants  ( citadins ) on the other. It is those who inhabit   urban ground who should be given the right to make decisions about it and to truly participate in its development and appropriate its spaces (Lefebvre, 1968). Here, I relate specifically to the discussion about “urban citizenship” as “a form of citizenship that is embedded in the reconfigurations of identity and belonging that are unique to the everyday settings of urban life” (Allon, 2013; see also Holston & Appadurai, 1999; Schwarz, 2013; Uitermark, Rossi, & van Houtum, 2005), rather than connected to legislative aspects of democratic rights and formal political participation (Bauböck, 2003). When referring to a city’s inhabitants as citizens , the city administration adheres to a kind of urban citizenship: A sense of belonging with associated responsibilities and duties. In the analysis that follows, my aim is to understand the difficulties this project met by analyzing the virtual city as space. This means taking into account for whom the virtual city was built, the city’s hopes of dialogue with its citizens, the users’ understanding of the virtual space, and their relationships with the city administration. Producing Urban Space in a Virtual World Malmö is not the first city to use Second Life  for civic projects. In their article “Placeworlds: Using Virtual Worlds to Foster Civic Engagement,” Gordon and Koo (2008) present a success-ful example of the use of Second Life  for democratic experimentation. They refer to a project in Boston, USA, where Second Life  was used to “strengthen the ability of neighbourhood residents to create meaningful places” (p. 205). A placeworld is a subgroup of the Habermasian lifeworld that is organized around a shared understanding of place. It emerges when people share a com-mon understanding of place, when a group brings a place into shared relevance. Gordon and Koo (2008) argue that multiuser virtual environments enable local groups to strengthen their expression and experience of place. In their development of the concept, Gordon and Koo fol-low the phenomenological tradition that understands place as experienced space (cf. Malpas, 1999; Tuan, 1977), in which “space becomes place as we get to know it better and endow it with value” (Tuan, 1977, p. 6). Place is, thus, regarded as fixed in time, a fixity that allows for the true nature of place to appear. In this analysis, I instead adhere to a Lefebvrian perspective on space as it opens up for an understanding of space that is more sensitive to its power dimensions. According to Lefebvre, the character of a place cannot be fixed and separate from movements in time, and places are negotiated in relation to different situations, unique and generated by a crossing of trajectories in time and space, always political, never neutral (Lefebvre, 1974/1991; see also Massey, 2005). Massey (1993) puts forward three dimensions of place that are impor-tant for the understanding of Malmö’s civic experiment and the lack of shared understanding  between the city administration and the inhabitants of the virtual islands: its nonstatic character, its links to the outside, and the open boundaries of places to the external world. 1  Massey also argues that places have multiple identities, are defined by conflict, and that each place, “is the focus of a distinct mixture of wider and more local social relations” (Massey, 1993, p. 66; Massey, 2005).A shared understanding of place, of the kind that Gordon and Koo (2008) found in Boston, was never created in  Malmo in Second Life ; rather, Malmö’s virtual city was conflictual from its start to its end. To comprehend the lack of shared understanding of place, I take a closer look at  Malmo in Second Life ’s spatial and temporal connections, trajectories and links as the city admin-istration and users of the virtual world articulated them, respectively. In the next section, I first  present a brief history of  Malmo in Second Life .  Bengtsson et al. 481  Malmo in Second Life : Urban Spaces Online 2 Malmö city administration used new technology intensively for a couple of years to develop the city’s democracy. Inspired by the “Swedish Embassy” in Second Life , a virtual embassy launched in 2007 (see Bengtsson, 2011), the administration decided to establish a virtual city,  Malmo in Second Life , for the benefit of its citizens and local democracy. As a virtual city,  Malmo in Second  Life  was part of a larger vision of how new technology could bring Malmö’s inhabitants closer to the city administration and to each other, and how using the anonymity of the virtual world could improve services for citizens. The project aimed at “increasing the accessibility, and usefulness of, information technology to strengthen the competitiveness and employment of the region.” The project application specified that Malmö city’s goal is to be cutting edge when it comes to technological development, as well as fulfilling our permanent task: reaching out with services and information to citizens of all age groups. To satisfy these, demands on fast, simple, reliable and individual service become increasingly important. When reaching out with information and services, especially to younger generations, there are additional demands on packaging messages in new arenas. [ . . . ] The target group for this project is mainly young adults, aged 18-30. (Malmö city’s application to the Department for the development of the industry [Verket för näringslivsutveckling] and the European Structure Funds. Personal handover) The financial crisis in late 2008 changed the basis of the project, however, and City Hall decided to “see if we can make it work, if we in any way can establish some kind of communication with the citizens in a different way” (G. Lindhe, personal communication, October 12, 2009).On May 6, 2009, the newly built Malmö environments were officially inaugurated. To enhance a feeling of homecoming, the urban space was modelled on some well-known environments in Malmö city, with the city library as the most important institutional monument (Figure 1). Numerous events, parties, contests, and a discussion forum on environmental issues took  place in  Malmo in Second Life , arranged both by Malmö city and the Swedish community in Second Life . In February 2010, after a big farewell party, the  Malmo in Second Life  era ended. In-World and Out-World Criticisms Malmö city’s democratic experiments in Second Life  were never as successful as the Boston example referred to by Gordon and Koo (2008), and when trying to understand the construction of  Malmo in Second Life  as place, many aspects have to be taken into account. I start by putting Figure 1: Malmö city library, in    Malmo in Second Life . Source : Author.  482  Space and Culture 19(4) forward the different kinds of criticisms that were voiced about the project, out-world criticism  primarily from people who were not actually involved in the virtual world, and in-world criticism voiced by Second Life  users.The out-world criticism dealt primarily with Second Life  as a platform at that time (“too late”), and the amount of money spent on the project (“too expensive”). The first point was mainly represented in readers’ comments not only in mainstream media but also in more specialized computer magazines and in the blogosphere. These comments varied from unarticulated outbursts such as “Hahaha, biggest  joke of the day” (Dduck, 2009). To more detailed criticism, such as in this blog post: Fail of the day! Malmö city opens in . . . Second Life?! Sometimes it’s good when local politicians try to keep up with the latest technology. Sometimes it is not. Malmö city announced that it will host a house warming party in Second Life today. Classic Internet expression: Fail! If you don’t know what Second Life is, don’t feel bad. It’s a virtual world that was almost cool when it was launched in 2003. [ . . . ] I hope you haven’t spent too much on this, Malmö . . . Maybe this year’s weirdest Internet project! :-)  Update:  Malmö has wasted SEK800 000 on this! Congratulations. (Johansson, 2009) Criticism regarding finances came from a different angle: newspapers and TV news, including their audiences’ comments, and in many blogs. One reader commented in the local newspaper, Sydsvenska Dagbladet   and argued, 1.2 million for this crap? What’s that? Like SEK 100 000 per person visiting the crap after the opening? SL was, just like Twitter, for instance, something that the media hyped to death and glorified even though no one really used/uses it in real life. Everyone involved in this project should be fired immediately for TOTAL incompetence! What were you thinking? (Guttis, 2009) The in-world criticism focused mainly on two things: that the city of Malmö did not fully realize the potential of the medium (“too little engagement”) and that the virtual city did not offer its visitors enough entertainment (“too boring”). The first kind of criticism came from avatars who were very engaged in the future of Second Life , and the in-world magazine, Slainthe , eagerly discussed the topic throughout the life of the project. In its first issue in 2009, it was addressed in the following terms: Malmo – to be or not to be, that is the question? Is there political will? What happens in Malmo? Or what doesn’t happen? More and more of the inhabitants of Second Life’s Swedish areas are asking themselves this question. Here, in this magazine’s editorial office, we’ve noticed increasing discontent and astonishment about how activities are handled in the three Malmo sims. [ . . . ] “Where is Rosengård with all its inhabitants and problems in Second Life?” 3  “Where are Malmö’s schools?” “Where is the culture?” “Where are all the societies and unions?” “Where is the job centre?” “Where are the police and other social aspects?” (Uggla, 2009) The other type of in-world criticism, “the too boring” criticism, made it clear that users of Second Life had expectations that conflicted with the resources and intentions of Malmö. A blog fre-quented by members of the Swedish community in Second Life  published a post answering the question why  Malmo in Second Life  failed:
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